We are surrounded by stuff. Physical property, objects we use. Even the poorest of us have some basic stuff: footwear, clothing. Having possessions is one of the defining characteristics of being human—with the questionable exception of a few animal species that have been observed using ad-hoc tools in the wild, nothing else owns anything (and even the tools used by chimpanzees or crows appear to be spur-of-the-moment constructions, abandoned after their immediate use rather than retained for their future potential).
But where do our priorities lie? I am thinking that there are at least two categories: stuff we pay too little attention to, and stuff we prize too highly. And sometimes there are types of stuff that fall to a greater or lesser extent into both sets ...
Stuff we pay too little attention to:
Our beds. (Bruce Sterling flagged this up in a memorable essay a couple of years ago.) You spend roughly a third of our lives sleeping. Your bed is therefore the single piece of furniture you use the most. Nevertheless, because we're unconscious most of the time while we use them, we tend to discount their importance. It's not just a matter of comfort: poor or interrupted sleep is associated with a variety of medical problems, some of them quite serious. (It doesn't get much more serious than tail-ending a truck on your motorway commute to work because you didn't sleep well, does it?) If you're going to spend on household furniture, it should rationally make sense to spend more on your bed and bedding than on everything in your living room put together, 42" 3D LCD TV set included.
Our chairs. I'm not sure I buy into the argument that our chairs are killing us: what's doing the killing is our working practices, which promote long periods of immobility while seated in cramped or poor conditions. But our chairs certainly aren't helping, and if you use one at work, it's the second piece of furniture you use most of the time. Yet all too often office supply departments buy work chairs strictly on price rather than on ergonomics or fitness for purpose. (Memo to self: investigate new office chairs.)
Stuff we pay too much attention to:
Wrist watches. Once upon a time—not so long ago—the capacity to accurately time was an expensive instrumentation problem. A town or village might have a central clock, in a tower; setting it and keeping it running accurately was a technical task. It became critical for trans-oceanic navigation (and if you want to know why and don't know, you could do worse than read this book), leading up to the invention of the portable chronometer in the late 18th and early 19th centuries; for a long period, portable nautical chronometers were used (frequently being carried by hand) to copy time callibration from the Greenwich observatory to other master clocks around London. By the mid-19th century the vast expansion of railway networks made accurate time-keeping a matter of strategic military importance; and the increased availability of horological skills bought the compact pocket-watch, and then the wrist-watch, within the budget of every gentleman.
But today we're surrounded by clocks—fast, accurate, ubiquitous. Clocks are literally everywhere, inside every computer, cellphone, GPS unit. Young folks today, in many cases, don't wear (have never worn) a wrist-watch, because they're never without a pocket phone. The wrist watch is, in fact, comprehensively obsolete.
Despite its obsolescence, the wrist watch has been reincarnated as an article of jewellery. They're everywhere in the shops around us, not merely accurate quartz-controlled watches (or devices controlled by radio-broadcast time signals) but archaic geared analog devices. The user interface—digits or traditional clock-face—is increasingly embelished, while usability takes a back seat to fashion. At the high end, one-of-a-kind individual works by master horologists sell for six-digit prices.
I'm not mocking the cult of the wrist watch as jewellery (I own a couple myself) but I am, nevertheless, puzzled, if not baffled, at the way an obsolete technological niche has been repurposed as a luxury item.
All of this is leading up to me asking a simple question.
Given the technologies we can foresee arriving within the next decade, and the stuff that's already here, let's look forward 30 years. What everyday items in 30 years time will we not be paying enough attention to? Or continuing to use despite their obsolescence, for purposes radically at odds with their original role?
(My money is on: smartphones, in both categories. Maybe laptops in the former. And rooftop solar panels as a social signaling mechanism about the degree to which their owners are concerned for the environment. Bicycles ...? Toilets ...?)